As Occupy Philly's Encampment Empties, Protesters Ponder the Next Step

By Michael Alan Goldberg
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 1 | Posted Nov. 28, 2011

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As 5 p.m.—the hour of Occupy Philly eviction, as decreed by Mayor Nutter—loomed on Sunday, you could feel the electricity pulsing through Dilworth Plaza: A mix of tension, nervous anticipation and excitement that hadn’t reached this level since that first morning of the occupation on Oct. 6.

The prospect of a police raid of the encampment—perhaps of the type Occupiers had already seen go down violently in cities like New York and Oakland, Calif., over the past month—can have that effect. Even if the PPD so far had been more benevolent toward Occupy Philly demonstrators than just about any other police force in the country has been to their own Occupiers.

Hundreds of Occupiers intending to defy the city’s eviction order scurried around, drawing signs, spray painting abandoned tents with final messages for city cleanup crews (“You’re drunk with power … it’s time to sober up,” read one), and sewing “unarmed person” patches to their jackets. The usual chants of “We are the 99 percent!” and “This is what democracy looks like!” sprung up repeatedly across the grounds. A new rallying cry cropped up, too: “Phase two, coming soon!”

Now that Occupy Philly has yielded the Plaza to the city after 53 days, people both within and outside the movement are waiting to find out what Phase II of the fledgling movement, following the demise of the round-the-clock encampment, will look like.

The city’s already extended one offer—a 30-day, potentially renewable demonstration permit at the adjacent Thomas Paine Plaza. But there are restrictions: Occupy Philly daily activity is limited to 9 a.m. until 7 p.m.; and no tents or overnight activity or sleeping is permitted.

“I have no idea what’s gonna happen next, and I don’t really like their offer,” says Lex, a member of Occupy Philly’s safety group, “but I know this is just the beginning for us.”

Of the many Occupations around the country, Occupy Philly is in the middle of the pack as far as dealing with the loss of 24/7 camping. Occupiers in Boston, Seattle and Los Angeles are still fighting eviction efforts, while those in N.Y.C., Oakland and Portland, Ore., have gotten a head start on that next phase.

On Black Friday, several hundred Occupy Wall Streeters packed New York’s Zuccotti Park—ground zero for the movement—to maintain their general assemblies, daily protests and working groups despite losing their encampment in a Nov. 15 raid marked by police brutality. Ringed by metal barricades and a couple hundred cops in a two-block radius, demonstrators dealt with the new rules. No blankets, tents or tarps. They can be in the park 24 hours a day, but if they so much as lay on the ground (ostensibly to sleep) they’re subject to immediate arrest.

“Watch this,” says “Mad Mike,” a burly 26-year-old with a Guy Fawkes mask perched on the back of his head who proceeds to sprawl out on the concrete. Indeed, within seconds, three scowling NYPD cops approach, but back off when they see he’s being interviewed by a reporter. “It’s ridiculous and unconstitutional,” says Mike, getting back up. “This is what you have to look forward to in Philly. How else are they gonna keep people from sleeping there?”

Other OWSers said Occupiers in Philly, post-encampment, will have to deal with further hindrances in the coming months. “It gets pretty fuckin’ cold in the winter, so good luck if you can’t have any kind of shelter,” says Roman Reznichenko, who spent a week at Occupy Philly in late October. He adds that there are transportation issues, too. “If you’re not camping down there, you gotta get there and I know I couldn’t afford that,” he says. “I know a lot of [Occupiers] who are from Jersey or out in the sticks and they don’t have the money to go back and forth every day.”

And if the encampment itself has been part of the message, then having to pack up shop every night could kill the momentum. “Out of sight is out of mind,” says Zuccotti Park mainstay John Nicholson, a 25-year-old EMT worker. “The press isn’t gonna cover it nearly as much without the camping and some of the drama that’s gone along with that, so if people aren’t devoted to sticking around all night and keeping it going and challenging them when they say you can’t be there, then this could all fade away pretty fast,” he says.

Other Zuccotti demonstrators say that the forced removal of the encampment has actually been a blessing. “Things needed to change here, so taking all that away and forcing us to rebuild has helped,” says Melissa, 25, who was arrested in the Nov. 15 raid. “Everyone who’s still here really cares about the movement.”

Hristo Boynob, 18, agrees that raid helped weed out the less committed and took away one of the main sources of scorn that’s been heaped on the movement. “There’s no more free food, no more parties and whatnot, so a lot of the provocateurs and the homeless and the crazies are gone and the people left are the true believers,” he says.

Crucial for Occupy Philly’s survival over the next few months, say N.Y.C. protesters, is for them to cultivate the same type of support network that’s sustained Occupy Wall Street over the past two weeks. Melissa says she and other demonstrators have linked up with people living near Zuccotti Park who let Occupiers crash in their apartments for a few hours at a time. Nicholson says that pizza joints and other local restaurants continue to donate food. “We respected those places and didn’t trash their bathrooms, so they’re still willing to help us,” he says.

There’s been talk that the attention-grabbing encampments and accompanying sit-ins and marches have already served the purpose of kickstarting Occupy, so the next phase of the movement should involve giving up the protest sites and migrating to the Internet, where information can be more efficiently disseminated and the movement’s energy redirected into more pragmatic pursuits like voter education and mobilization.

Chris Faraone—a reporter with the Boston Phoenix who’s been covering Occupy Boston and has spent time at a dozen more Occupy sites around the country the past two months—disagrees. “Whether it’s occupation-camping mode or not, I see a physical presence being the watermark of this movement,” says Faraone. “People really need to get together in person to make plans for these events and marches, which I really think are working. I think it’s now in the back of these CEOs’ minds that, ‘Fuck, 3,000 people are gonna show up at my office.’ The head of Bank of America in Boston does not like the fact that 500 people show up at his house once a week. That kind of thing isn’t gonna happen if you move everything to the Internet.”

One likely evolution of Occupy Philly is a de-centralization of the movement, where participants break off into smaller occupations all around the area.

In fact, it’s already happening. On Saturday, a dozen members of Occupy Norristown set up their “99%” banners outside the Montgomery County Courthouse and stood along Main Street holding their signs—as they have every week for about a month—as passing cars honked their support. Several demonstrators, like elementary school teacher Karen Rosenberg, started out at Dilworth Plaza before trying to bring the message closer to home.

“This movement has to spread out beyond the big cities—you gotta get people in the ’burbs on board if you want real change,” says Rosenberg, who holds a large sign that reads, “Save the American Dream.”

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1. Joseph said... on Nov 28, 2011 at 05:02PM

“Agreed that its a good thing that they have to figure out what to do next. Honestly, people's attention spans are pretty limited, and the fact that Occupy has been covered so well for more than a month is a blessing. But eventually it's gotta get on with itself, maybe start a PAC, and get some political action going. Boring and unsexy as it is, that's how you really get things going. Donations, signature collecting, ballot initiatives. That's also what democracy looks like.”

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